No pain, no gain

Ink on your skin. Long ago, tattoos stopped being a taboo. They are no longer a sign of a criminal, a tough biker or a sailor. This body art went mainstream and nowadays it is common to see a pop teenage girl on the dance floor with a tribal tattoo in her lower back or a computer geek with the Linux penguin on his shoulder.

In Helsinki there are dozens of tattoo parlours and studios. Many of them are located in the areas of Punavuori, Kamppi and Kallio. The selection is diverse and vast, but so is the demand. It can take some weeks to get an appointment with the most popular tattooists, especially in summer. Anton, of Legacy Tattoo believes that “there are too many tattoo artists in Helsinki and that decreases the overall quality”. In his opinion, “some of the tattooists are world class, but people tend to go to the cheapest places, so there are too much mediocre work done”. However, Rosti and Juho of Vida Loca have a very different opinion. “It’s good to have competition”, they say, “it’s good for the business and it forces you to improve”.

Pin-up girls, skulls, flames, hearts… Many tattoo artists are fond of the traditional and colourful designs. Nevertheless, they will make any custom design: tribal, Chinese characters, the silhouette of your idol, the Finnish lion. Anything is possible. Jykä, of Spider’s Tattoo, says that a popular tattoo nowadays is HIM’s heartagram: “there are many girls visiting Helsinki, especially from Germany and Australia, that want to have it”. A peculiar souvenir, indeed.

It is also interesting to see the areas where people want to have tattoos. They range from the traditional tattoo on the arm to the most intimate areas. But sometimes not every centimetre of skin is suitable: “some people have impossible ideas”, Anton explains, “like a tattoo on the sole of the foot. I have to say no then. It’s a stupid place because it will be very painful and the ink will wear off after some months.” Artists prefer to tattoo the usual places: arms, legs, and back. Rosti reckons that some areas are not very pleasant, like the “ribs and chest, which can be a very painful”.

A tattoo must hurt
Pain is a big part of the tattoo culture. Many will argue that there is no tattoo without pain. In the old days the artists would knock the costumer out if they would here some complaints. But nowadays, with tattoos being so popular, everyone wants to suffer as little as possible. Anaesthetic lotions are sold and accepted, which some artists are not so happy about. “I use to tease my costumers about it”, admits Anton, “I’d say that I don’t tattoo anyone who has used the lotion. However, I must say that when I got my tattoo on the back, after 30 hours, I started using the lotion myself.”

The learning process for a tattoo artist is a long and lasts several years. There is no tattoo school, so the artists are usually self-taught and complete their training as an apprentice with an experience tattooist. “I used to practice with pig’s skin”, Jykä recalls, “but that is a little bit different”. For Anton, however, there was no other guinea pig than himself: “the first tattoo I did it was on myself. It was really bad. Then Kristian took me on as an apprentice here at Legacy. It took three or four years of work until I was happy with my tattoos. Still I can improve some details”.

In spite of the bikes and the rock, the life of a tattoo artist is not as glamorous as it might look. Artists recognize that even though they love it, it can be a very demanding job. “I get very anxious before a big project, like sleeves (a tattoo, or a collection of smaller tattoos, that covers a person's entire arm), I can hardly sleep”, Anton says. “Some days, when I get home, my eyes hurt, my hands hurt and I have to start drawing the next design. Luckily this year I will have a one week holiday”.